Scientists have discovered a mind-controlling parasite – the likes of which is something straight out of a zombie movie.
The parasite, known as lancet liver flukes, has taken over the minds of ants, holding the insects hostage and forcing them to do their bidding. The microscopic organisms infect the ants during their first stages of life. It then takes over the creature's brain to spread the infection to its next host. It does this by forcing the ant to act as a sacrifice to larger predators.
The parasite ensures the ant is offered up as food to animals such as deer and cows, according to new research in the journal ‘Behavioural Ecology’. The publication added that the climbing is induced by the parasite specifically during dawn and dusk to avoid the heat of the midday sun.
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In a statement, Brian Lund Fredensborg, co-author of the paper and associate professor of organismal biology at the University of Copenhagen, said: "We found a clear correlation between temperature and ant behaviour. We joked about having found the ants' zombie switch.”
Speaking to Newsweek, they added: "The successful completion of the life cycle requires that the grazing mammal eats infected ants. Forcing the ants to the tips of grass blades increases the chance that the ant is eaten by the deer.
"The point of making the ant climb the grass at dawn and dusk is to synchronize zombie ant behaviour with the grazing activity of the deer who primarily eat at dawn and dusk. It makes really good sense that the ant is 'released' during the midday hours where the chance of getting eaten is less and where the damaging effects of sun rays may kill the infected ant sitting on the grass and thereby also killing the parasite itself."
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The parasite, also known as Dicrocoelium dendriticum, is a type of worm which survives by passing through hoasts to reproduce. The worm begins with the ant before moving to another host to develop into a full adult and lay its eggs.
These eggs are then excreted in the faeces of the grazer so that the cycle can continue. Often ingested by snails, they then excrete the larvae, which are fed on by the ant.
While this knowledge isn’t something new, the research suggests that their mind-control abilities are more sophisticated than originally thought. Researchers plan to continue to study the parasite and its abilities.
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Experts explain that while the parasite can infest humans, there is no evidence to suggest they are able to control our minds like they can with ants. So the ‘Last of Us’ fans can rest easy.
"Humans are not part of this parasite's usual life cycle, and when it [rarely] happens, it would be in the place of the mammalian host where no behavioural changes occur," Fredensborg said. "Behavioral changes of intermediate hosts to make them more likely to get eaten by the final host are relatively common in parasites with complex life cycles. However, humans almost always take the role of final host where no parasite control of host behaviour takes place."
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